Vienna Philharmonic, Christian Theilemann: Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1-3

C. Michael Bailey By

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Vienna Philharmonic, Christian Theilemann

Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1-3



Tempo warning: Christian Theilemann's Beethoven is not the one we have become accustomed to over during the 25 year spasm of "historically informed" or "period" performance. Theilmann's tempi are informed by the late Romantic conductors/composers and evidenced in his Wagner and Bruckner recordings. Tempi this slow have not been heard since Otto Klemperer. This is not a bad thing, but forewarned is forearmed.

Conductor Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic have teamed up to provide the "Beethoven of the 21st Century" by releasing the canonical Nine Symphonies on DVD and Blu-Ray, together with the Overtures and one-hour discussions of each work. Thielemann has been controversial and not completely well received by critics for his Late Romantic repertoire and particularly his Beethoven.

In 1997, Thielemann and the Philharmonia Orchestra released Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7 on Deutsche Grammophon. This was a bold move at the time, mimicking Carlos Kleiber and The Vienna Philharmonic's near perfect 1974 release of the symphonies on the same label. While Thielemann proved to be no Kleiber, there was still much to endorse in the performances.

The first installment of this three-set series includes Symphony Nos. 1, 2 and 3, plus the Coriolan and Egmont Overtures. The pieces were recorded before in high definition before a live audience at the Goldener Saal der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. Thielemann is a youthful 50-years old and is obviously well received by the audience and the orchestra.

What of Thielemann's Beethoven? The conductor takes seriously the master's marking of Adagio molto in the first movement. So slow, that it is uncertain if the orchestra will get enough traction to take off. But no fear, by the time Thielemann gets to the Allegro con brio section, things clip right along. In fact, for the remaining three movements, things almost sound hurried. Thielemann is a man at work, perspiring, obviously restraining his enthusiasm for his subject. His attention is dense and dedication palpable. The conductor extrapolates this dedication to the two brief Overtures with aplomb.

Once Thielemann gained traction in his direction of the Symphony No. 1, he dispatched Symphony No. 2 perfectly. The orchestra was well balanced as were all the tempi. Thielemann was again animated but not to the point of distraction. This is a serious man doing his serious work. The Adagio molto is not as seriously adagio as in the Symphony No. 1, and here, Thielemann and company take this Allegro con brio firmly a la mode, giving it a bright and brisk reading. This is Beethoven channelling Haydn with warmth and admiration.

The Largetto second movement is stately and graced, paced with determination and thought. It is played as directed by Beethoven, expansively and expressively. The Scherzo flows seamlessly, Theilemann is relaxed and intent in his direction. He divines Beethoven's sunny character from the movement, the strings sumptuous and the reeds always revealing the composer's mind. The finale, Allegro molto, elbows its way to the front with confidence, saying what it has to say. An eclipsed serious tone emerges, foreshadowing the composer's titanic Symphony No. 3. Theilemann graciously presents the orchestra to an appreciative crowd with a requisite number of exits and returns.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major is a musical hinge on which culture turns. The composer had put away childish things, coming face-to-face with the evolutionary pressure of music and composing. A so-called "middle period" work, Beethoven's deafness had firmly manifested itself and the composer was resolute in his single-minded determination to create. Thielemann's direction of those first two booming, definitive notes is all important and he elicits them from the orchestra with grit and muscle. This movement grandly defines Allegro con brio. He does take his time, but the movement never drags, retaining its gravity and drama.

Besides the length of the opening movement, it was the second movement that was a stylistic game-changer for Beethoven's listeners. A Funeral March (marked Marcia funebre: Adagio assai) marked a departure from the typical second movement. Grave and solemn, Thielemann gently awakens the orchestra to the familiar theme. The high definition sound manifests potently here: the march in the low strings and brass, the violins whisper, and the composer's heart in the reeds make for a sum much greater than the parts.


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